The Moonwalkers: A Journey with Tom Hanks, Lightroom review – a thrill ride into the wonder of space

 (Justin Sutcliffe)
(Justin Sutcliffe)

"The moon has always been our constant companion, right?" come the dulcet, unmistakable tones of Tom Hanks at the start of The Moonwalkers at the Lightroom, and immediately the audience knows it's in safe hands. Everyone on earth has looked up in wonder at the moon and imagined the possibilities, the Hollywood actor continues, but only 12 people have walked on it.

This 50-minute production (how best to describe it: a show, a film, an immersive experience?) celebrates the endeavour, the science, the art and the sheer exuberance of how humanity reached the moon – and it's a glorious, exhilarating ride.

It is the second show at the Lightroom, a large single space in King's Cross (about the size of Houston's mission control for the first moon landing, we are informed) with images, films and animations projected on all four walls and, at times, on the floor. For me, it is also a much more thrilling use of the space and technology than in its debut show about David Hockney.

Visitors are free to move around, to look this way and that for different perspectives on the film and there is so much information that it feels repeat viewings would be welcome – so it's lucky a ticket allows you to stick around for more than one showing.

Of course, there is something about space travel that brings out the gleeful, unfettered joy of everyone's inner child and it's clearly something that Hanks – who played Jim Lovell in the film Apollo 13 about a failed mission to the moon – has never lost. As a child he would lie underwater in a paddling pool breathing through a hose imagining he was weightless above earth's atmosphere.

He co-wrote The Moonwalkers with writer-director Christopher Riley (who has written numerous shows about space travel), and it looks both backwards and forwards. Backwards at the Apollo missions, which put all 12 astronauts on the moon, and forward to the Artemis programme, which will send the next astronauts around the moon in November in preparation for another landing, more than 50 years after the last person set foot on our nearest celestial neighbour.

 (Justin Sutcliffe)
(Justin Sutcliffe)

Many will know some of the story of previous moon landings – certainly of Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, but perhaps less about the following five Apollo missions that made it to the moon, and why NASA kept returning. Fewer still will know about the astronauts making that 240,000 mile journey on Artemis II, and there's a nice introduction to them and what inspired them to become astronauts, as they set off to discover more and inspire a new generation.

Hanks' film walks the line of rib shaking spectacle – the entry price is worth it to experience the sequence showing the launch of the Apollo 11, set against Anne Nikitin's rousing score, followed by the sudden silence of space which had one viewer next to me gasping in wonder – and including the greatest hits from John F Kennedy's speech with the famous line about heading to the moon "not because it's easy but because it's hard" and the even more famous line from Armstrong about his one small step.

But it also includes a lot of other extraordinary moments that aren't famous, but are as moving. Rusty Schweickart describing having his breakfast on Apollo 9, looking out over the earth from space, realising he was looking at the cradle of civilisation. The sculpture left on the moon to the fallen astronauts, the experiment done in honour of Galileo on the moon's surface, and the unabashed joy of the astronauts cutting loose and just messing about.

The writing from Hanks and Riley is authoritative and told with a lightness of touch; frequently it is beautifully poetic. It examines the scientific endeavour of space travel, as well as humanity's need to explore, but what's really striking is how time and again it talks about the art of it all, pulling in references that include Michelangelo – and made its case beautifully.

And ultimately it just leaves the viewer with wonder. The wonder that an astronaut could pick up a rock that is 3.5 billion years old, and the enormity of the "deep time" it speaks to, as Hanks put it. And that "the atoms in your body, and in these rocks came from the same stars" and we're just borrowing that star dust for a short time.

So why are we going back to the moon? This excellent, wonderful, densely packed film reminds us that it's because this is the pinnacle of humanity's achievement in exploration so far, and that more than 50 years since we first walked the Sea of Tranquility, it has so much more to teach us. How thrilling is that?

Lightroom, to April 21;